UK waves £45m cheque, charges scientists with battery tech boffinry

Attempt to make Blighty an innovator in the field

The UK has launched a £45m competition to support research in electric vehicle battery materials, technologies and manufacturing processes.

Although the now-commonplace lithium ion battery was developed based on research by Oxford University in the 1980s, there are conspicuously no battery manufacturers in the UK today – instead they tend to come from countries like China or Japan. The research challenge is the first stage of the UK's new £246m Faraday Challenge – a four-year investment round for the research, innovation and scale-up of battery tech, which is one of the government's six Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund challenges.

"Rather than lose out to other countries" the UK wants to generate its own ideas, Kathryn Magnay, head of energy at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), told The Register.

EPSRC is funding the competition, which is open to any UK university, and creating a virtual "Battery Institute" of researchers.

There are seven specific challenges the EPSRC has identified for research funding.

One is reducing the cost of batteries. Others are increasing energy and power density, increasing the range of temperatures batteries can operate in, developing reusable materials, improving safety, battery management and predicting the lifetime of new battery materials.

A key area is chemistry. For example, researchers could study substances other than lithium ion, such as sodium ion, or perhaps consider batteries with solid electrolytes instead of the common liquid electrolytes.

"We can get the next generation of chemistry," Magnay said, adding that there will be key performance measures created individually for projects.

"We know it takes a long time for research to have impact," she said, but the hope is that there will be some sort of "significant" progress within 10 years (even though there is only technically funding for four).

She admitted that a "good portion" of the research will "fail".

The development and scale-up stages of the Faraday Challenge, which will try to take the research done out of the lab into the real world, will be funded in part by Innovate UK and industry actors including the automobile industry. The focus is on electric vehicle batteries because the industry is already willing to invest, but in future the Faraday Challenge might also apply to other fields such as rail, Magnay said.

The grand idea is that universities would create spin-off companies, existing battery manufacturers would be attracted to the UK, or companies already in the UK that use materials would expand their portfolios into the battery sector. "That's a big ask," she admitted.

"This field sucks up money like there's no tomorrow" but "I think there will be major innovations," said Billy Wu, an electrochemical engineer at Imperial College London who was involved in discussions on the competition. His research areas include the engineering integration of batteries as well as new battery materials.

Wu said it would take at least 10 years to go from a tech patent to commercialisation. Automobile manufacturers might want a lifetime analysis of more than six years for a new, unproven material.

There have been classic failures in battery innovation – like the MIT spin-off company A123, which meant to put lithium-ion battery research to market that would make batteries last longer with more safety and power – that didn't work out. "You have to throw a lot of money at it in a coherent way," Wu said.

Some UK researchers are sceptical of the Faraday Challenge. "I don't see the point," Weiping Wu, an electrical engineer at City, University of London, told The Register. "It won't really change the game of industry."

He points out that "not much progress has been made" on battery performance in the past 20 years. "The UK has never been very strong in this field" and there's "no time" to compete with other countries such as China and Japan in basic research, he said.

Instead, he said electrical vehicle improvements would be made faster if the UK invested in integrating existing battery technology into systems.

Others disagree. "It all gets down to the execution," Donald Sadoway, a battery researcher at MIT in the US, told The Register. "If they spend more money with existing players, nothing much will come of it. If they challenge people to propose radical innovation without regard for likelihood of success, much in the way that ARPA-E started out, then we might see some results."

In general, it seems like the competition will move forward with the general research community's backing.

Imperial College's Wu argues it's not economical to continuously import batteries. Producing them locally could lower costs as well as improve safety – lookin' at you Samsung Galaxy Note 7 – because flammable batteries wouldn't have to be transported as far.

The clearest case for funding integration instead of basic battery research is faster performance, but Magnay and Wu believe that because it takes a long time to see results from basic research, it's important to start funding now. They argued that if you wait too long, and figure out the improvements that can be made in integration, at some point you'd max out on the benefits of integration and would need to find new materials and explore new chemistry.

"Fundamental science needs to be nurtured," Wu said. ®

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